Lovers of traditional biopics beware! If you go into Netflix’s Blonde expecting a story about the life of Marilyn Monroe you are going to be sorely disappointed. Based on Joyce Carol Oates’ novel of the same name, this is a fictional tale that happens to contain some true events, but is not intended to be all that accurate, or really even very biographical at all. Instead, writer / director Andrew Dominik has set out to tell a bleak and unrelenting story about the ways that the entertainment industry has long abused some of its brightest stars in the name of quick profits, how tabloid journalists further exploit them, and our complicity in not only turning a blind eye but often rabidly consuming the products that come of it.
In 1933, 7-year-old Norma Jean Mortenson (Lily Fisher) is gifted a picture of a man that her mother Gladys (Julianne Nicholson) claims is her absent father, which she is promptly forbidden from holding or even touching. A fire breaks out in the Hollywood Hills that night, and Gladys grabs Norma and starts driving into the hills where she claims her father lives but is ultimately turned around by a Police roadblock. Back at home, severely intoxicated and increasingly unhinged, her mother blames Norma for her father’s absence and attempts to kill her, but Norma escapes to a neighbor who ultimately has Gladys committed to a mental institution and young Norma sent to an orphanage.
Now an adult, Norma Jean (Ana de Armas) has taken on the name of Marilyn Monroe and become a popular pin-up girl while also trying to break into acting, where she encounters further abuse and ridicule before landing the role of Nell in Don’t Bother to Knock in 1950. While the movie itself received mixed reviews, her performance stood out and her star began to rise, though with the increasing fame comes increasing scrutiny and an ever-growing cadre of people willing to take advantage of and abuse her to get what they want, as she finds every chance she has for genuine happiness ripped away from her.
The movie’s NC-17 rating probably has more to do with its general tone than any of the content, which can be explicit but not moreso than I’ve seen in some other R-rated films. It is a bleak movie however, with very few moments of joy. While de Armas absolutely nails the part of Monroe, she is largely relegated to being a victim of the whims and machinations of those around her, giving the viewer very little sense of the things that made her such an interesting character in real life. But as I said, that is not the point of the story here. Dominik wants the audience to get a visceral understanding of how abusive those in power can be and the physical and mental toll they can have on the people beneath them while also pointing the finger at all of us and our insatiable appetite for salacious and exploitative stories about celebrities, never stopping to consider that they are real people, equally capable of pain.
While it is stylishly shot and littered with excitingly bold directorial choices, this is often not an easy watch. It approaches Darren Aronofsky’s Requiem for a Dream in its unremittent showcase of suffering with flourishes of psychological horror, and will leave viewers feeling similarly shell-shocked afterwards while never going quite as over-the-top as that movie does. Those who understand what they’re getting into and think they can endure it will find it a worthwhile and haunting experience, but anyone who found last year’s Spencer off-putting will definitely dislike Blonde. Count me in the former camp. ★★★★★
rated nc-17 for some sexual content. note that it also contains language, violence, thematic material, and an overall intense and bleak atmosphere.
★★★★★ = Excellent | ★★★★ = Very Good | ★★★ = Good | ★★ = Fair | ★ = Poor